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Winning the Battle but Not the Job


by Kendra Clark, for SIOP

Cancer survivors face discrimination paradox when searching for work

Even after the battle is won, cancer survivors continue to face hardships in the workforce.

Inspired by his own personal battle with cancer, SIOP member Craig White conducted two studies looking at attitudes toward cancer survivors and the discrimination they face when rejoining the workforce.

“There are millions of cancer survivors out there, and a lot of those people are of working age,” White said. “There is very little research out there about cancer survivors.”

In a pair of studies, White found there is a discrepancy between the attitudes and actions employers display when interacting with a potential employee who is also a cancer survivor.

“Hiring managers have ambivalence toward cancer survivors,” he explained. “Being a cancer survivor has negative and positive stereotypes. They are perceived to be both weak and strong. So the mangers have good intentions, but their behaviors may not reflect this.”

White’s research, on which he collaborated with Larry Martinez, Jenessa Shapiro, and Mikki Hebl, shows that when interviewing, hiring mangers appear to have positive intentions for cancer survivors—they are very likely to say that they would hire a cancer survivor or that they had sympathy for them. However, they are also less likely to hire them.

This research will be presented at the 29th Annual SIOP Conference,which takes place May 15-17, 2014 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In his first study, White asked 68 retail managers to measure applicants’ job suitability, interpersonal discrimination intentions, and hiring intentions. Conditions were manipulated so that some of the applicants were described as wearing white hats and others were described as wearing hats labeled “cancer survivor.”

There were no significant differences in ratings of job suitability for applicants who disclosed versus did not disclose cancer survivorship. Similarly, no significant differences were found regarding likelihood of hiring the applicant who disclosed survivorship compared to the control applicant. Participants overwhelmingly reported that it would not matter to them if the applicant had a history of cancer, which was statistically different than chance. Finally, participants anticipated they would display relatively equal levels of interpersonal warmth with applicants disclosing a history of cancer as they would with applicants with presumably no cancer history.

White’s next study, however, showed that positive intentions do not always equate to actions. In his study, five research assistants posed as applicants for jobs at 121 retail stores. Similar to the previous study, each assistant was given a white hat. Unbeknownst to the assistants, some were blank, and others had the words “cancer survivor” printed across the front. The assistants handed the “cancer survivor” hat were also given a resumé that had a gap in work history, with an attached note saying they were treating cancer during that time and have been in remission for more than a year. The assistants were trained to ask only five specific questions to avoid any substantive difference in each assistant’s interview quality and each was instructed to hand their resume directly to the manager with which they spoke.

None of the managers specifically mentioned the hats the assistants wore during the interactions. While there was no statistically significant difference in the number of managers who denied applicants an opportunity to apply for the job, applicants in the cancer disclosure condition received fewer employment offers than those in the control condition—13 employment offers in the cancer survivor condition, 22 employment offers in the control condition—and reported significantly more interpersonal discrimination.

White is a two-time cancer survivor, and he found it difficult to keep his medical history private while he was looking for jobs.

“I had gaps when I wasn’t working because of the cancer,” he said. “I’ve had to explain to employers why those were there. It’s hard not to explain because they only see you haven’t been working for a while and want to know why. I felt it necessary to explain it was an illness, not me being lazy, that caused the gaps in my work history.”

White explained that hiring managers may discriminate against cancer survivors out of fear.

“Employers are afraid of the potential healthcare cost,” he said. “Or that the applicant won’t be able to fulfill their job duties due to their medical history.”

Health status is a protected class under the law, so there could be a perspective lawsuit if discrimination occurs, White added.

In order to prevent unintentional discrimination, White suggests training for hiring managers.

“Organizations should include health status in training practices,” he said. “We need to train people to be aware of attitudes so they can know what they are doing. It’s a tough hill to climb because there are so many negative stereotypes about us so it’s hard to overcome.”

But White said he will continue to fight the battle.

White would like to recognize and thank his collaborators on this research, Drs. Larry Martinez, Jenessa Shapiro, and Mikki Hebl for their guidance and hard work on this project.